Addressing international R&D security concerns without squashing innovation
- As administrators consider the potential security threats around institutional research and development done with international collaborators, it's critical to "strike the right balance" between "making sure our assets are protected while maintaining an open environment," said Neil Sharkey, vice president for research at Pennsylvania State University, during a roundtable discussion Wednesday hosted by The Science Coalition and the Association of American Universities.
- Leaders can take steps to find this middle ground, panelists said. For example, Rodolfo Torres, interim vice president for research at Kansas University, said he has one computer that he takes on trips to China and deletes all files when he comes back to the U.S. "I think we haven’t communicated these basic tactics well enough to alleviate some anxiety," Torres said. "We all take national security very seriously."
- Panelist Padma Raghavan, vice provost for research at Vanderbilt University, noted that because "this is the information age ... all of us broadly should know how to protect our information assets." And while executives should have protocols in place, David Conover, vice president for research and innovation at the University of Oregon, said that constraining what researchers do abroad undermines the greater goal of knowledge growth in higher education and society broadly. He added that instead of avoiding risks, "we should be investing in a whole new realm of R&D that allows us to out compete countries like China."
The topic of security in research and development has gained traction recently, particularly with greater congressional focus on the potential for institutional expertise getting into the hands of nefarious actors. In particular, an April 11 joint hearing of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Research and Technology of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology titled "Scholars or Spies: Foreign Plots Targeting America's Research and Development" brought this topic to the forefront of discussions on university-government relations.
In a joint statement from the American Council on Education, Association of American Universities, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the Council on Governmental Relations, the higher education stance was clear: "Research universities share a vested interest with the government in ensuring that intellectual property, proprietary information, trade secrets, sensitive data, and other classified and/or otherwise controlled government information developed or housed at our institutions is not susceptible to academic exfiltration, espionage, or exploitation."
The statement said, however, that more work needs to be done in ensuring proactive collaboration across institutions and federal agencies, referencing the fact that the FBI’s National Security Higher Education Board (NSHEB), aimed at helping top college administrators speak directly with high-level security agents, was disbanded in February.
In the meantime, executives can take a nod from leading researchers, who say there are small but powerful steps academic departments can take to put in place protocols and security measures that ensure intellectual property and sensitive information is protected and not transferred to the wrong hands — all without there being a trade-off with the goal of knowledge production, Sharkey said.
"We rigorously follow expectations according to federal policy. But at the same time, we are an open society and basic research is open research. To do it effectively requires international input," he said. "I think probably the best approach is to rapidly move our discoveries to the marketplace, so we can remain competitive."
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